Egypt’s stature seen on rise, PA marginalized but chances for renewed peace push unclear.
UPDATE: Israel and Hamas reached an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire that took effect Wednesday afternoon. Both sides agreed to end rocket fire, and Israel agreed to ease border crossings into Gaza.
The cease-fire hammered out in Cairo to end rocket attacks between Hamas and Israel appears to have bolstered the stature of Egypt and solidified Israeli-U.S. relations, but few believe it will truly end hostilities.
“I don’t think the cease-fire will hold for a long time,” said Avraham Selah, a professor in the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “My sense is that there is going to be another round of fighting sooner or later.”
The cease-fire, he explained, does not change the situation on the ground in Gaza from which Hamas has blindly fired hundreds of rockets and mortars at Israeli cities and towns during the conflict — and more than 2,000 this year.
“There remains in Gaza a fragmentation of numerous militias and jihadist groups, each with their own sources of arms supplies and political support, especially Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees,” he explained. “And there are many smaller groups who also possess all kind of weapons. You don’t need much to trigger a conflagration simply by [one of these groups] launching a mortar shell, which is the easiest way of harassing Israel.”
Michael Herzog, a former head of the strategic division of the Israel Defense Forces and now a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, said that since the last Israel-Hamas clash in January 2009, the number of rockets in Gaza has “doubled to around 12,000 … and for the first time there are long-range rockets. We don’t want it to worsen.”
“I assume that Israel wants to make sure that once the cease-fire occurs, it will not find itself with factions in Gaza arming themselves to the teeth and firing on us again,” he said in a conference call Tuesday arranged by The Israel Project, a pro-Israel nonprofit.
Herzog said there are different elements to the cease-fire, and that before the firing stops there would be an understanding of what a final truce would look like. Once agreed upon, the shooting would stop and negotiators would then put in writing the agreements.
“The major brokering power is Egypt,” he said. “It has a special relationship with Hamas and can influence Hamas to agree to a cease-fire.”
Hamas is insisting that the Gaza borders with Israel and Egypt be opened to allow for the free flow of traffic into and out of Gaza, including naval traffic.
Herzog said Israel is demanding Hamas stop all weapons smuggling into Gaza and “enforce a cease-fire on the other factions. Until now, it has been reluctant to do that, but it will have to make a choice.”
He said Israel, although ready for a ground war, has been reluctant to send in troops because of the large number of civilian casualties that could be expected. And he said Hamas’ “infrastructure was seriously degraded” by Israel’s targeted attacks in the last week against arms caches, smuggling pits, rocket launching pads and weapons manufacturing plants.
Nevertheless, Hamas has a “sizeable arsenal and can continue to function. To really knock them out, [Israeli troops] would have to go into Gaza.”
Yossi Alpher, a political analyst and former special adviser to then Prime Minister Ehud Barak, said the fighting was a real test for the new government of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, which hosted the peace talks.
“It’s testing how Egypt — being the most important Arab country — will fulfill its leadership role,” he said. “Would it identify with the armed struggle of Hamas against Israel or play the role of a seasoned and powerful Arab country that prefers stability and is in desperate need of aid from the West?”
“So far, Morsi is looking good,” Alpher said, just hours before the cease-fire was announced. “He paid positive lip service to Hamas and sent his prime minister to Gaza. If and when he delivers on a cease-fire, we can judge if he behaved responsibly.”
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said Egypt “is already part of any guarantor of the truce because it is hosting the negotiations, which by definition makes them a party.”
Robert Danin, a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Egypt’s actions “have shown us there is durability to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.”
“When the crisis erupted, Egypt withdrew its ambassador to Israel for consultations — the minimum action it could take to express displeasure,” he said. “It then acted as an intermediary, having both Israeli and Hamas representatives in Cairo. … It shows that the peace treaty is intact.”
Danin noted that Israel prepared for a ground offensive but was reluctant to do so for a number of reasons, among them that it would “lead to popular pressure on the Egyptian government to abrogate the peace treaty — and that is something the Egyptian government did not want to do.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to the region Tuesday amid efforts to help nail down a cease-fire. Steinberg said the Obama administration was strengthened by the way it handled this crisis.
“It comes out strong because it regained the trust of Israelis and demonstrated that cooperation with Israel gets a lot further than friction,” he said. “We didn’t have the usual language of asking both sides to exercise restraint, and there was not even subtle criticism of Israel. President [Barack] Obama said plainly that Israel has the right to defend its citizens. We heard rhetoric during the presidential campaign that Obama was throwing Israel under the bus. Not this time, and his position persuaded the Europeans to support Israel as well.”
Steinberg pointed out that despite attempts of Hamas to allege that Israel was guilty of human rights violations and war crimes in its targeted attacks in Gaza, the international community didn’t buy it.
“That worked well for them last time … but did not go anywhere this time,” he said, noting that the claims made four years ago were eventually discredited.
Clinton’s arrival Tuesday night in Jerusalem came as the Egyptians were working with both Israeli and Hamas negotiators to bridge the gaps in their demands.
“The U.S. has been playing a key role from afar with the president working the phones daily, talking with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and Morsi and others in the region,” Danin pointed out.
“The president wanted to pivot towards Asia and to set American priorities towards Asia, and he was in Asia, but Clinton had to curtail her visit [with him] for this,” he said in a conference call with reporters. “That shows that the Middle East will pull you back in.”
He cautioned that it is “one thing to broker a cease-fire and another to pivot that into a peace process. One of the results of this latest round of conflict is to highlight the role of Hamas in Middle East politics. The peace process to date has not factored them in. How you do a peace process with Hamas outside [the talks] is a challenge for the next Obama administration.”
Several analysts noted that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has promised to ask the United Nations General Assembly next Thursday to grant the Palestinians the status of a non-member observer state.
Danin said this conflict has “only heightened [Abbas’] marginality given the fact that he does not control Gaza and Hamas.”
He said reconciliation talks that were restarted this week between Hamas and Abbas’ Palestinian Authority would probably fail because neither side is “sufficiently willing to make the compromises necessary for real reconciliation.”
But Gershon Baskin, co-chairman of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, said he believes a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would lead to the Palestinians in Gaza demanding that they be included.
“Palestinians in the West Bank have relatives in Gaza and are all part of the same family,” he said. “They feel victimized [by the Israeli attacks in Gaza] just as 98 percent of Israelis are rallying around the [Israeli] troops.”
He noted that there is a youth movement in Gaza that has taken to social media to proclaim that they “want to live in peace — we want a future.”
“I think this represents a large percentage of the youth in Gaza,” Baskin said. “People there are fed up with what is happening, just as the people in Israel are fed up with the rockets.”
He said he believes Abbas and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert almost had a peace agreement and that a deal today is very possible.
But Steinberg said he does not believe a deal between Olmert and Abbas was possible. Nevertheless, he said, a cease-fire with Hamas may embolden both the Obama administration and Netanyahu to explore the possibility of new peace talks with Abbas.
As the cease-fire talks continued, the rocket attacks appeared to intensify Tuesday as two more Israelis — including a soldier — were killed. Three Israeli civilians were killed last week when a Hamas rocket hit their apartment building.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, led a 20-member rabbinical delegation to pay a shiva call on the family of one of those killed in the community of Kiryat Malachi.
“We saw the room where the attack occurred and recited tehillim [psalms],” he said.
There were also expressions of support from a group of public officials at a press conference in front of the Israeli Consulate in New York, and a solidarity rally organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council on Long Island.
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